Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween Already?

It's that time of year again, when we turn our thoughts to the macabre and spooky, dress up as the things that frighten us, and carve images into large gourds. Horror movies come out of the woodwork, even though they tend to be a constant trend these days. As always, some are bad, some are good, and some are so bad they're good if you're into that sort of thing. Here are some of my favorites that linger at the back of my mind long after the credits have stopped. Not all are supernatural or fantastical in some way; most are about the real life sorts of monsters since those scare me more than the boogeymen tend to. They aren't really fun “party” movies, more the curl up on the couch with a blanket and all the lights off sort. Some are truly horrifying, but it's the poignant melancholy and underlying exploration of human nature that keep me coming back to them. Horror isn't about gore or a momentary startle, per se, that's just momentary viscera. Horror at its core is what the name implies: the things that horrify us. So here's mine.

Joon Ho Bong is one of my favorite directors working today; he also directed The Host and Mother but this is, in my opinion, his best movie to date. Memories of Murder is based around the first actual recorded serial murders in South Korea, events from the mid-80s. The film's atmosphere swings from actually comical in the beginning, when the small-town police force is dealing with something so far beyond their training that they can't even see what's going on. It's often funny but in a sad, uncomfortable way as they fake evidence, torture suspects for confessions, and generally blunder around in such ineptitude you can't help but laugh at the tragedy of it all. They honestly, earnestly think they know what they're doing. It isn't until a cop from Seoul joins the investigation that they make headway, inevitably along with clashing egos and territoriality, but even then it isn't enough. No matter how much they figure out, there are bigger issues at work than their small-town murders. The conflict with North Korea is playing havoc with the resources they need, more and more women are turning up not just dead but mutilated, and the cops begin to realize how deep in over their heads they are. The ugliness of the killer's hatred for his victims is evident in the increasingly upsetting things he does to them. Upsetting in part because we know he doesn't hate them for who they are but simply what they are. We need to believe there are answers just as desperately as the cops do, but there's no way we can be sure of any of it. How many leads were real and how many are we clinging to simply because we so desperately want to believe them?

Le Boucher is probably Claude Chabrol's most well-known film and it lives up to its reputation. Chabrol is often cited as the French Hitchcock and it's clear the two filmmakers influenced each other, as they both play in the same arenas using many similar techniques and comparable levels of skill. They both made movies that are about much more than whatever the plot is and this film is absolutely no exception. It is a murder mystery, a romance, and a fascinating waltz with the dark sides of our own psyches that repel and attract us. The mystery is not what you think it is, and if you go into it expecting a who-done-it, you will be disappointed. That isn't what's going on here at all. We know who did it, we even know why; the mystery is not with the killer at all. Watch it very carefully, especially Stephane Audran as Helene because that knockout performance is the whole reason why this film works. I'd even go so far as to say it is the entire point of the story at all. Watch the scene with the long drive more than once and tell me I'm wrong.

(Chabrol's film The Bridesmaid is currently streaming on Netflix, and is also worth watching. Again, surprise isn't the point of it, but rather knowing what's inevitably coming and simply watching it unfold.)

Of course everyone knows the shocking twist to this film, and most of us have probably seen it at least once. But it's one you can watch over and over because like with Le Boucher, the point isn't the story itself-- it's about something much bigger and quieter and unspoken. Possibly the only true horror film Hitchcock ever directed, the horror doesn't lie in what happens onscreen; it's in the things we never really see happen at all. How many answers do we really have about the whys of Norman Bates? Are monsters born with their monstrosity or are they created from love and innocence and ignorance? How much can we really trust the answers the film tries to give us? How much does the film want us to believe the doctor at the end of the film? How much can we trust anyone's account of the Bates family and what went on in it? Norman's house gives us the only facts we can really trust and even then we're only guessing. But the real question is how much does it matter when we realize the only person there we really love is the villain?

A woman who doesn't know who she is, lost in the city of dreams and new beginnings. She's running from something; she doesn't know what it is, but she knows it's terrible and it's catching up to her. There is nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time, when we were earnest and good, where everyone got what they deserved and mysteries were meant to be solved to put our fears to rest. We forget that sometimes it's worse to know what it is looking back at us from the dark. We knew the whole time it wasn't real-- we bought the ticket, after all-- but sitting there in the dark we forgot about the real world and who we're sitting next to and even who we are. There are moments when we remember it's all an illusion but we want so badly to forget the real world that the winks from the person behind the curtain are jarring and unsettling. We have invented our own fantasy, but we're so busy enjoying the dream that we don't want to wake up. The monsters are scarier in the daylight because we know what they really are.

The distinction between reality and fantasy is drawn much more distinctly in this film than in Lynch's, but there's still plenty of ambiguity left. However, trying to decipher if Ofelia's encounters with the Faun and other creatures is actually happening is a bit beside the point. We'll all have our own opinions on the ending, of course, and that's how del Toro wants it. There is no "right" answer for it. The real meat of the film is in the relationship between innocence and, for lack of a better word, "evil," and how in some ways they are each others' doppelganger. The palate del Toro works with seems stark on the surface but the darks are rich and complex, with the lights serving primarily as a contrast. Sergei Lopez's performance as Vidal is terrifying and utterly riveting.